You’ve always wanted to learn French.
You dream of strolling through Paris at midnight, you’ve watched La Vie en Rose twelve times, and you can tell a 2003 Cabernet Franc from a 2004 Cabernet Franc just by smell.
So you decide to learn. You enrol in a course. You train your ear with native speakers. And it’s going great! By the fourth week, you can make the “r” sound like a pro. By the eighth week, you can conjugate without even glancing at your notes. Not to brag, but you feel like a native speaker.
But then…it stops.
You’re doing all the same things, but now you feel stuck. You feel like you’re not learning anything, and this language is much harder than you thought. You just want to walk away.
You’ve a hit plateau.
What is a plateau?
When you first begin to learn a language, you make a lot of progress quickly; in fact, it can seem like you’ll be fluent in no time.
But then your learning slows. Drastically. And the language gets hard. Instead of picking up hundreds of exciting new vocabulary words, you’re parsing through dozens of impenetrable grammar rules and struggling to perfect your pronunciation. It takes longer. It’s not as fun. It feels like you’ve hit a brick wall.
Welcome to the plateau.
What causes a plateau?
Every learner is different, but plateaus generally occur for a few reasons:
You haven’t changed the way you learn. You’ve been studying the exact same way since you began. You found a strategy that worked for you, like textbooks or audio lessons, and you stuck with it—a little too long.
You’ve met all of your goals. When you first started learning, what did you hope to accomplish? Maybe you were preparing for a trip to Thailand or you were determined to read Oscar Wao in Spanish. Then you met those goals. Now your learning has stalled because you don’t know where to go next.
You don’t have clear goals. On the other hand, if your goal is simply “become fluent in Mandarin,” then you’re not being specific enough, and you’ve probably petered out because you can’t see a clear end.
You’ve burned out. Languages are hard. They seem easy and fun at first, but once you get to the higher levels, it’s easy to lose steam. Some days are a struggle. That’s okay.
Hitting a plateau is a natural part of your language-learning process. But you can’t stay there.
Reevaluate your goals.
Close your textbook and open a notebook. Yes, right now.
Now, think critically about what you actually want to get out of your language. “Being fluent” is too vague—fluency could mean everything from written fluency to conversational fluency to acing a proficiency test.
So what drew you to the language in the first place? And what do you want to accomplish now?
Write down both short-term and long-term goals.
Examples of good short-term goals include: learn enough Arabic to understand Al Bernameg without English subtitles; complete a business course in Mandarin; score a B2 on a proficiency exam.
Good long-term goals include: learn enough Arabic to pass a non-language course in that language; learn enough Mandarin to get a job in China; and score a C2 on a proficiency exam.
Make deadlines. Then break each goal down into concrete steps. For example, if your goal is to learn enough Egyptian Arabic to watch Al Bernameg without subtitles, then your first step might be watching the show to familiarize yourself with its particular vocabulary, and your second step might be to find related word lists.
Use more native materials.
So you started off with designated language-learning materials. You have a shelf full of textbooks, a Rocket Language subscription and an unopened Rosetta Stone boxset. That is a great way to begin your language-learning experience.
But you can’t stay there.
To actually achieve native fluency, you’ll need to start consuming the materials that native speakers do, like books, television shows, movies, music and games.
If the thought of completing one more workbook assignment makes you pull your hair out, then step back and turn to something fun. Watch a Swedish film. Read a recipe for baklava in Russian. Stretch yourself.
Target your weak spots.
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. You might have near-perfect pronunciation but the inability to recall vocabulary words longer than 5 letters. You might be a whiz at the written language but be at a loss when hearing it.
- Use skill tests like Dialang to diagnose your weak spots, then zero in on them.
- If speaking is your weakness, then find a partner on iTalki.
- If writing is your weakness, then get feedback from native speakers with Lang-8.
- If listening is your weakness, then start listening to radio broadcasts, podcasts or music.
(And, of course, Rocket Language’s program combines all three.)
Bear with me. The University of Muenster in Germany found that bursts of high-intensity exercise can significantly improve cognition and memory. After sprinting for three minutes, taking a three-minute break, and then sprinting for another three minutes, participants learned vocabulary 20% faster than participants who stayed sedentary or completed a 40-minute, low-impact jog.
If you’re doing everything “right”—you’re learning from native materials, you’re targeting your problem areas and you’re adhering to achievable goals—but you’re still feeling the slog, then exercise before studying in order to give your brain a boost. It will wake you up, help you learn faster and just plain feel good.
Even better, try working out while you study. Walk around your room while reading from a textbook. Bring your flashcards on the exercise bike. Play audio lessons while running at the gym. The increased blood flow will boost your learning abilities.
You will get through this.
When most people hit a plateau, they quit. They walk away from the language because it’s not fun anymore, and they think they’re not getting anywhere.
Don’t be one of those people. You can achieve your goals, whether that goal is learning business Chinese, achieving fluency on an official German exam or picking up just enough Spanish to backpack through Argentina. Set clear goals, change your learning materials, target your weak spots and get physical, and you can beat this plateau in no time.